In Indonesia polls, Jokowi in danger of losing lead to Prabowo

Polls show gap has shrunk to less than five points in key battlegrounds

AS PRESIDENTIAL candidate Joko Widodo took to Jakarta's main street for a brisk walk yesterday, he was surrounded by supporters, many offering birthday greetings to Mr Joko, who turned 53 last Saturday. He had a brief message for them - help him win the capital on July 9 - before leaving to prepare for the evening debate.

His opponent Prabowo Subianto, meanwhile, opted to enter a mid-afternoon rally at the capital's Bung Karno Stadium on the back of an open-top jeep as tens of thousands of supporters bussed in by labour unions and coalition parties cheered.

The two men seeking to lead Indonesia have vastly different campaigning styles but, as campaigning crosses the halfway mark, the distinctions do not just explain why the appeal of Mr Joko, known as Jokowi, seems to be wearing thin as Mr Prabowo's surges.

They also illustrate the contrasting mood in both camps - anxiety and urgency in Mr Joko's camp as his lead slips, versus confidence in Mr Prabowo's as his ratings soar.

An opinion poll of voters from June 1 to June 15 by the country's largest newspaper, Kompas, published last Saturday found Mr Joko and his running mate Jusuf Kalla leading Mr Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa by 7 percentage points, a figure similar to what two other respectable pollsters reported last week.

The Jokowi-Kalla ticket would get 42.3 per cent of the votes, and Prabowo-Hatta 35.3 per cent, with 22.4 per cent of respondents still undecided, Kompas found.

But the lead is much smaller in Java - where almost 60 per cent of the voters are - with Mr Joko leading by just 4.5 points. In Sumatra, where 21 per cent of the voters are, he leads by 3.1 points.

At this stage in the race, it is a gap that even the Jokowi-Kalla ticket's lead of 10 percentage points and more on other islands will find hard to bridge.

Observers say the latest polls, which have yet to be officially released, show the gap narrowing further, with the Jokowi-Kalla ticket holding a mere two- to three-point lead that could tip over any time, putting Prabo-wo-Hatta ahead. These indicate that Mr Prabowo would win in Sumatra and Banten, and run neck and neck with Mr Joko in Jakarta and West Java.

Yesterday, Mr Joko's strongest message was: "Jakarta is very important as a symbol. Because of that, we cannot lose in Jakarta."

Both sides now aim to cover as much ground as they can before the three-day cooling-off period begins on July 6.

Given how close the fight is, many expect both sides to take advantage of the local bureaucracy in areas where they are in control to influence voters, and make full use of the start of the fasting month of Ramadan this weekend, a time when mosque attendance rises, to use the pulpit to canvass for votes, even though this is prohibited by campaign rules.

Here, observers feel that Mr Prabowo, who is backed by all but one of the Islamic parties, may have the upper hand.   

But Dr Nico Harjanto of the Populi Centre does not think the personal attacks behind Mr Joko's drop in support will be worse than what is already out there.

"The Jokowi team is also seeing better coordination and getting better on social media," he said, noting how they have beefed up their online presence and rebuttals to smears.

Political analyst Djayadi Hanan of Paramadina University told The Straits Times that Mr Joko's strongest point - his firm resolve, seen in his attempts to get bureaucrats to shape up - has been overshadowed by his opponents' coordinated aggressive campaign.

Mr Joko won the run-off gubernatorial election to lead Jakarta in 2012 with 54 per cent of the vote, but his opponents have gained ground by campaigning on the fact that he has failed to live up to his promises to fix the capital's woes in the less than two years he has been in charge.

As for Mr Prabowo, he has come under fire for his involvement in the abduction of activists in 1998, most recently by his former commander Wiranto, now a key member of Mr Joko's team. Mr Prabowo has declined to comment on the matter, but his team has been active in its rebuttals.

Mr Prabowo enjoys greater support from the upper and middle classes, which observers attribute to his being able to display a more "presidential" bearing, in particular at televised debates.

Kompas found both tickets tied among upper-class voters, and the Jokowi-Kalla pair had a slim 4.2-point lead among middle-class ones. However, Mr Joko led among lower-class voters by more than 10 points. Many say they trust him more because he is "one of us".

"Some argue Prabowo is smarter," said fisherman Dari Baridin, 51, from West Java. "That's not too important. What is ideal is an honest president with smart ministers helping him."

zakirh@sph.com.sg